In the northern hemisphere, autumn has officially arrived. We have once again crossed the invisible border into the time of long nights. Duly noted. I look forward to frosty mornings, glorious foliage and sipping hot cider. I also look forward to moments of spiritual contemplation on the idea of balance, rest and renewal, darkness and dreaming. Underneath the superficial trappings of the season, that is the heart of what autumn means to me.
Over the years, I have become what is sometimes loosely defined as “spiritual but not religious” or “none of the above,” a sector of the population that is growing in the industrialized West, and especially in the U.S. It’s a fuzzy category, and some say that it is a meaningless one. I don’t quite believe that, but I’ll grant that it is hard to pin down. My concept of the Divine is abstract enough that most conventionally religious people would classify me as atheist. My official affiliation is Unitarian Universalist. I am mostly secular, but consider myself Buddh-ish in some respects, as well as a follower of the teachings of that itinerant Jewish preacher who wandered Palestine a couple thousand years ago. I’m a humanist and a feminist, who likes the concept of the goddess in the abstract as a counterweight to patriarchal culture, but hasn’t simply swapped pronouns while keeping the underlying faith. I consider the natural world sacred, but then find the need to define what I mean by “sacred.” I am a certified science nerd, and that informs my beliefs as well. I try my best to be respectful of all. Oh dear. That’s really quite complicated and too nuanced for many people, so I just end up simply checking the “none of the above” box and call it a day.
Without a sanctioned holy book to dictate meaning, and without magic-big-daddy (or mama) in the sky, my search for meaning leads me back to my home ground: Earth. With its rhythms and seasons, its diversity and abundance, there is plenty to draw on for inspiration, even for the scientifically minded secularist. It wasn’t so long ago that humans feared the coming of autumn and winter with a, “what if the sun never comes back?” existential angst.
Now, we know that the Earth is just doing its seasonal, hemispheric dance of light and darkness. Now, we know that we circle an ordinary star, in the celestial backwater of an average galaxy, one among billions. We feel small, yes. But the incredible thing is that we are alive. We are alive at a time in our species’ history that we can deeply understand this cosmic smallness, and simply marvel at the existence of the vast universe. We can become reacquainted with genuine awe. We can create meaning for our own lives, rather than be subject to superstition and fear.
We know the light will come back next spring. We know the flowers will bloom and the trees will bud in April. Knowing this, we can enjoy autumn with the deepening darkness. Nature has a wisdom for us to ponder as we watch the leaves turn. Autumn lends itself to thoughts of the transience and impermanence of all things. Savoring the moment is paramount. Autumn also teaches us to respect times of fallowness, a radical act in a society that is perpetually overworked.
So, I wish you a glorious autumn. I wish you cider to sip, and long walks in golden woods. I wish you time to contemplate and courage to look deeply within. Autumn is here.
Rebecca Hecking sips pumpkin spice lattes in northwest Pennsylvania. She is the author of The Sustainable Soul: Eco-Spiritual Reflections and Practices from Skinner House Books..